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Farm to Tablet: On Showing Up

This month on the homestead we have been waiting for lambs. This sounds exciting, and is, except that the majority of waiting for lambs involves tripping out through the foot-high snowdrifts to the freezing barn over and over only to find...wait for lambs.

Due to the frigid temperatures, it is imperative that we arrive soon after a birth to ensure that the ewe (a new mother and therefore a less reliable one) does not reject the lamb and leave it on the ground to freeze. We must also dip the lamb's umbilical area in iodine, strip the mother's teats, and help the lamb to latch, so that the ewe's rich colostrum can fill her babe with its first three months of immunity. Add to that the possibility that these first-time mothers might require birthing assistance if their labor stalls, and you have Scott and me marching out to the pasture multiple times day and night. We check just before we sleep and just after we rise. One of us also wakes at 2:30, in the true dead of night, dresses in a stupor, and staggers out into the cold, cutting our teeth on the sharp stars.

Barn in the night

This is a rhythm which, earlier in my life, I would have resisted. When one puts forth such effort, one expects to be met with immediate reward. Otherwise, the energy required doesn't seem to justify itself. It is easy, especially in our production-driven culture, to view such investments as frustrating, inefficient, even wasted.

Writing, thankfully, has accustomed me to slow rewards, though in the last month I have encountered two epiphanies regarding my current novel-in-progress. Epiphanies, like lamb births, are exciting occasions, and they are also rare. For me, they land suddenly, with a magical flourish, a bit like unicorns. The first of these epiphanies arrived in the form of a brand-new character—an odd and forceful woman—who instantly demanded a significant amount of space and an early incorporation into the book, most of which I have already drafted multiple times. My second epiphany arrived in the form of a character's motivation, which I abruptly discovered to be very different from what I had first presumed.

Mostly I greet these flashes with gratitude. What gift! What inspiration! What possibility! But a small, resentful fraction of myself cringes at the new mountain of work ahead. An entire subplot, which I had thought nearly finished, must be painstakingly revised. A character's arc must (again!) be reimagined and rewritten. Initially I had hoped to send a draft to my agent this past fall. When fall arrived, I informed her I was aiming for spring. But at this rate, despite my daily, faithful hours, I will be lucky to finish a solid draft within the year.

Thankfully my kids keep me supplied with a collection of adorable erasers

It's times like these I must remind myself that nothing is wasted—not the long stretches of time I stare wondering out the window, not the days I scribble six pages only to pitch them the next morning, not the years I spent drafting stories that will never (I hope) see the light of day. The chapters I must now compost will, I know, grow new chapters to stand where they stood. I need to believe this to do what I do, but I truly do believe it, and I believe it with an ardent and immovable heart.

It is all rather like the live lamb that surprised me on a frozen morning, after our first lamb was born, white and still, ashen-faced and open-mouthed, her limbs twisted together in a jumbled heap. Stillbirths in sheep are not uncommon, but regardless I cried as Scott and I folded her limp body into a bag and carried her off—our first lambing, our first loss. Now we had a ewe, Greta, with a swollen udder and no babe to ease it. Was she aching as I would be, I wondered. How could she not know that her whole body was asking a question that would never be answered?

Pregnant Greta on a snowy morning

I climbed back into bed heartsick for Greta and her lamb and for us, too. No doubt I should have done something differently. Was it my ignorance that had caused this, my presumption that I, unskilled, could preside over an event so fraught with potential complications?

After a bout of fitful sleep, I rose again, pulled on my snowpants and chore coat, my knitted hat, my thermal gloves, and headed back out to the barn. I didn't want to go. Instead, I wanted to sink my sadness into sleep. But I had to make sure Greta was still well, with hay and fresh water, so I stomped out to the pasture, irritated at the pitiless cold, the tripping snow. I found Greta standing when I entered—a good sign, I decided—and then my groggy lizard brain snapped alert. A tiny brown form was shivering beside her on stilt-like legs. A dimly confused little face with heavy eyelids and wayward ears. A shuddering ribcage, four shaking knees. A lamb. Greta had birthed a second lamb, and it had lived.

The night air had dropped close to zero, and a newborn lamb's temp can plummet dangerously low in that kind of cold. I whisked the babe up into my arms and ran to the house, calling frantically to Scott, who came careening out of bed in joyful shock to fetch an old blanket. We wrapped the lamb up and laughed and cried and laughed some more. Then we just sat and stared at the tiny creature, awe and sleep-deprivation striking us dumb.

I mean, wouldn't you be struck dumb, too?

You wait, and you wait, and you wait, I thought. You persevere in your tedious, tiresome vigils. You build a backdrop with your plodding. Against the weather-beaten baseline, you start to spy out the shape of a change. Against the practiced silence, you listen for the song. And just when you begin to wonder if anything will come of it all, life plunges in with its burst of world-shaping surprise.


Also, dear reader, in case you missed it, you can pre-order my first novel here (!), to be released this October. Only 8 months to go!  
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Writer · 14641 Waterloo Munith Rd · Grass Lake, MI 49240-9495 · USA

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